Note: This is actually a couple of days late. But you probably don’t care any, right?
You can almost picture it in your head. It’s February 22, 1940. A skinny Okie fresh into New York City after a few years of moderate success playing on California radio station for an audience of fellow Dust Bowl exiles is sitting alone in room. Probably in the apartment of an old friend from California, an actor named Will Greer. It’s the kind of room someone without much money could afford. A table, a couple of chairs, a bed in one corner…and a radio. The radio is on. The swelling sound of a full orchestra and the powerful voice of Kate Smith belts out—again—Irving Berlin’s God Bless America. It has been ubiquitous on the radio for almost two years.
Woody Guthrie knows something about America. He has seen quite a bit of it in the last decade. And a lot of what he saw wasn’t pretty. Through the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression he had been with people who had been dispossessed, forgotten, and despised. He had chronicled their lives and their struggles. The song rubbed him the wrong way. Loving America had to be about more than mountains and prairies and “oceans bright with foam.” And he was sure as hell not sure that God had blessed the place or that folks should ask him to.
Snuffing out his cigarette, Guthrie reaches for a battered notebook and a pencil stub. He begins to write…
Maybe it happened that way, maybe not. At any rate the self trained songwriter did not take long to finish a song. He called it, at first, God Blessed America for Me. It had the same reverence for geography, but hinted that geography was traveled and lived in, “as I went walking that ribbon of highway.” And it also laid claim to ownership of the land that “was made for you and me.”
The tune was adapted from snatches of an old Baptist hymn, Oh, My Loving Brother and a Carter Family song Little Darlin', Pal of Mine.
Guthrie was new to the big city when he wrote the song. Geer was just introducing him to a bunch of lefty folk singers loosely based around Greenwich Village including Pete Seeger, Cisco Huston, Lead Belly, Josh White, and Sis Cunningham. Pretty soon he was singing with a loose group with some of them as part of the Almanac Singers playing mostly union halls, benefits, and Communist Party events. Guthrie never actually joined the party—he would not subject himself to Party discipline, but he was an enthusiastic fellow traveler and penned a whimsical regular column, Woody Sez in the Daily Worker featuring his own cartoons.
About the same time he was being interviewed by Library of Congress folklorist Allan Lomax who recorded hours of conversations and songs. Lomax helped Guthrie sign with Victor Records. That summer the label released two three disc collections known as the Dust Bowl Ballads. While not huge commercial successes, the recordings were instant classics and established Guthrie as the leader of a thriving American folk music scene.
But his song about America was not on those recordings. He played it some in personal appearances. He tinkered with the lyrics, sometimes adding new verses, sometime omitting his last two original verses. He began calling the song simply This Land is My Land after the opening words of the chorus. Guthrie did not get around to recording it until April of 1944 in one of his many sessions for Moses Asch’s Folkway label.
The song was not published until 1951 when it was issued in a mimeographed collection of Guthrie’s song lyrics meant for distribution at schools and sold for 25¢. The booklet contained ten type written songs and cartoons by Guthrie. Despite not being actually produced and distributed until 1951, Guthrie copyrighted the content in 1945. Probably for space reasons this edition left out the last “political” verses to the song. Although Guthrie sang a couple of variations of those verses, the most commonly in use now are:
As I went walking I saw a sign ther”
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing."
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.
Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.
In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office, I’d seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?
By the way, if you happen to have a copy of one of those mimeographed pamphlets, hang on to it. It is worth more money than a lot first editions in fine bindings.
In 1955 Ludlow Music finally issued a professionally printed edition of the song. It also claimed copyright, which has been disputed by Guthrie’s heirs.
By the early1960’s the shortened, apolitical version of the song had become a staple of the burgeoning folk music scene thanks to that little 25¢ pamphlet and the Folkways recordings.
One young admirer, Robert Zimmerman of Minnesota set out for New York to meet his hero. Guthrie by that time was hospitalized in the final throws of his long battle with Huntington’s chorea. As Bob Dylan he recorded This Land is Your Land and it became an anthem for a new generation. Guthrie’s old friend Seeger, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul, and Mary all frequently performed the song, which was adopted by the Civil Rights Movement.
Woody Guthrie died in 1967, his legacy secured in no small part by this one song. It had become a staple of school music programs. Generations grew up singing the song as just another patriotic tune.
On January 19, 2009 Pete Seeger was joined by Bruce Springsteen and his grandson Tao Rodríguez-Seeger performed the song in the finale of President Barack Obama’s We Are One Inaugural Celebration in Washington, D.C. before an audience estimated to be 400,000 people and millions more at home. At Seeger’s insistence, they sang the often neglected “political verses.”